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History of Siberia
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Eclipses and History

eclipse of August 1999 taken from Weyregg Austria by Merv Hobden

How eclipses happen

By coincidence, the sun and the moon appear from Earth to be about the same size in the sky. This means that at times in its orbit the moon will be in the line of sight in front of the Earth to observers on the Earth. When it covers the sun completely, this is quite spectacular.

Here is a diagram showing how the movements of the moon around the Earth can cause an eclipse, either of the moon or of the sun.

This cycle had been calculated by astronomers more than 6,000 years ago. Records have survived from the Sumerians, Chinese etc. The Saros cycle is named from Sumerian, and later Babylonian astronomical tables which have mostly survived to the present. It was given the name by Edmund Halley who was one of the first of the "modern" astronomers to realize that ancient records were useful. (He had traced records of what became known as "Halley's Comet" and there knew it had an orbit around the sun.)

This cycle of over 18 years (about 18 years 11 days 8 hours) was already known to medieval clock makers who put this cycle onto the mechanism of their astronomical clocks. It was called the "Dragon Cycle" for as was once known or at least embedded in mythology, it is at such times that the sun is eaten by a dragon. On medieval clocks it was traditionally marked out by a painting of a dragon.

It was from looking at the ancient records of eclipses, that Edmund Halley discovered that the moon is gradually moving further from the earth. And the earth itself is spinning more slowly on its orbit over time. Going back into the past, there was more chance of seeing a total eclipse of the sun. So the days were shorter, with more in a year.

The sight of a total eclipse of the sun, is still a sight worth seeking for the experience. It is on many "must see before you die" lists. However some people after their first successful experience (there is a good chance of being clouded over) get addicted. Eclipse holidays and expeditions are arranged. We went on one such to Austria for the 1999 eclipse. I manned the telescope helped by two keen young children, while Merv did the photography. We were so lucky as the clouds parted at just the right time. See photo at top.

Don't forget to get the equipment sorted out before you go. You must have the correct sort of filter for your camera - and a tripod for it. You must have sorted out card - white for the projection, and black to make a shield around your telescope (sticky tape and scissors useful) to watch the eclipse as it progresses and can be seen on the card. For partial eclipses of the sun you can take photos of the projected image, which does not need any special filter. Don't forget to put on the cardboard eclipse watching specs - over your normal specs too.


When is the next eclipse you can see?

  • time and date all the useful calendars for where you are.

  • NASA eclipse website - can found out what you can see where you are and when.

    Some Eclipses in History

  • NASA site with solar eclipses of historical interest

  • ESA site The eclipse in history

  • Solar Eclipses in Chinese History and Mythology.

  • How eclipses were seen in history.

  • Chinese astronomy

  • China and Space

  • National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand

  • Some astronomy, especially eclipses, in Thailand.

  • Eclipse of 1858.

  • More on King Mongut and the eclipse of 1858.

  • Historic eclipses.

  • Stamps showing the 17th century expeditions from Siam to France, and France to Siam, with illustrations of stamps showing King Narai watching a partial eclipse of the sun at his new observatory with the Jesuit astronomers who built it.

  • King Monkut and the eclipse.

  • Singapore's Consul for Siam at the time of the 1868 eclipse

  • More on King Narai.

  • More on the history of astronomy in Thailand up to the present.

  • On Lopburi, including the remains of King Narai's palace and observatory.

  • More on Lopburi and King Narai's palace and observatory.

  • More on Lopburi and its historic observatory.

  • Ayutthaya, capital city of Siam in King Narai's rein.

  • Article on King Narai and King Mongkut and their scientific interests.

  • Article on astronomy in Thailand.

  • More on science in Thailand.

    iTunes (iPhone and iPad) and GooglePlay (Android) have apps to download on the moon and eclipses - some are free (but may have ads).

    See also:

    Written, designed and maintained by Heather Hobden
    The Cosmic Elk